How Motherhood Changes Your Brain by Alexandra Newmarch.
Becoming a mother changes things. From the moment your child is conceived, your body is changing.
Your identity, priorities, focus, and ways of spending your time also shift – sometimes just a little, sometimes radically.
I work as a Psychologist, specialising in children and teenagers, and because of this, I knew quite a lot about the brain. I needed to, because although our brains are able to change and build new connections across our entire lives, childhood and adolescence are times of amazing brain development and growth.
Babies are born as little bundles of potential, with billions of brain cells ready and waiting to be connected up. Over the following months and years, neural pruning occurs at a rapid rate. Neural pruning is the process by which little-used links between brain cells are discarded, and useful, well-used links get stronger.
One way of picturing it is to imagine a network of roads through a forest. Those that aren’t used soon become overgrown with grass and greenery, until they’re swallowed back up by the forest, while those that are used become clearer and wider. Just as people can then travel from point A to point B more quickly and smoothly via those well-worn roads, the strengthened neural connections transmit messages and data through the brain more efficiently and effectively.
What I didn’t know, however, until after the birth of my son, was that during pregnancy a mother’s brain undergoes neural pruning at a similarly rapid rate.
How Becoming a Mother Changes You – the biological side
In 2016, a team of researchers led by Elseline Hoekzema published some fascinating findings in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Through conducting detailed brain scans, they found significant reductions in the volume of grey matter (that is, the main bodies of nerve cells) in the brains of the new mothers. This might sound alarming, but it’s just another way of saying that over the course of their pregnancies, the new mothers’ brains had undergone significant neural pruning. When follow-up scans were done years later, most of these changes were still present.
Most of the more permanent changes – paths being trimmed away to become stronger and more streamlined – happened across parts of the brain that are associated with processing social information, and with understanding other people’s states of mind.
These, of course, are skills that are very useful when you’re taking care of a baby who can’t talk to tell you what they need. They help mothers to multitask, to empathise with and respond to their baby’s cues, expressions, and cries, to regulate their own emotions (e.g. the distress we feel when we hear a baby cry) and to respond to threats in the environment. These changes – and the high-intensity emotions that go with them – also help with bonding, both in the baby’s early days, and in laying down the foundation stones for lifelong attachment.
Something that’s important to note is that, despite all these changes, pregnancy and motherhood doesn’t change your overall cognitive ability and memory. I’m sure most parents have experienced moments of “baby brain” (for example, forgetting names and words, making yourself a cup of tea…without the tea bag…), but that’s more to do with the impact of sleep deprivation and fluctuating hormones, and perhaps the increased mental load that you’re managing. There is no scientific evidence that pregnancy itself causes a decline in how well you can think and remember.
How Becoming a Mum Changes You – the social and emotional side
As humans, we’re a complex interplay of our biology and our environment.
The biological changes in our brains, and the impact that they have on our parenting, are also reinforced and influenced by more abstract forces. Just as our brains automatically make connections, and refine and discard pathways, the things we spend time paying attention to, focusing on, and prioritising, also build up neural connections and pathways.
As psychiatrist and author Dr Alexandra Sacks writes, “It’s not only the physiology of pregnancy that changes the brain, but also the lived experience of parenting. Brain scans cannot yet factor in all of the ways becoming a parent may change you, from the way you sleep to the way you exercise and even socialize.”
It’s not surprising then that for many, motherhood results in a changing identity, in opportunities to reinvent one’s self and one’s life pathway. Many women who undergo a career change after becoming mothers, or who work in creative fields, report that their experiences have led to an increased ability to use their time more efficiently and effectively, and to a new source of inspiration, creativity, and motivation.
How Motherhood Changes Your Brain: Summing It Up
So what does this mean for new mothers?
Well, in many ways, we’re only at the beginning of the journey. Researchers are hoping that as we gain a better understanding of the maternal brain and the changes it undergoes, we’ll also gain a better understanding of things like postnatal depression, anxiety, and psychosis. But, for new and expectant mothers, here are some things that might be helpful to remember during this time.
- Your brain will change, and that’s OK. The changes will help you to be the mama your baby needs. And no matter how much neural pruning occurs, you’ll still be YOU – although sleep deprivation and hormones might impact on your ability to think and remember clearly for a while, that will pass.
- You may find that you want to change jobs or even careers, to pursue a dream or passion that might have lain dormant until now. This too is normal, and although the new responsibilities you have now might add a layer of difficulty to factor in, just as changes you’ve experienced in your brain and your life help you on your parenting journey, they also have the potential to help you follow that dream.
- Lastly, regardless of how beautifully your brain has adapted itself to motherhood, stress over a prolonged period of time negatively impacts your ability to respond to your baby’s cues, so it’s important that you remember to take care of yourself, that you look for ways to manage and decrease stress in your life, and seek extra support when life gets hard – for you and your baby.
Motherhood is a time of change. But we’re not alone on the journey. And our amazing brains, full of wonder and possibility, of new and strengthening pathways, are up to the challenge.
Thank you so much to Alexandra for writing this informative article!
Alexandra is a wife, mama to one adorable baby boy, bookworm, writer, daydreamer, and psychologist, predominantly working with kids and teens.
She loves using the expressive/creative arts and play therapies with her clients (both the small ones and the big ones), and, when she’s not working, throwing herself into different creative projects and mediums. She also loves baked goods.
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